The strange and wonderful story of a choir in a back alley

I was drawn to the sound during a street fair one autumn evening a few blocks from my house. I followed signs that beckoned down a short alleyway between two three-story brick Victorian houses. My neighborhood is full of these houses, defined by them, “twins” built in pairs in the 1890’s with an alley between each pair. The narrow corridor was shadowed and the sound grew louder as I approached a dark back yard. The sound was voices- eerie, joyful, jangling, ancient, insouciant singing. At the very back of the yard, under fairy lights, and wearing something on their heads, women were singing. I was intrigued by the music and wanted to learn more when I found out that it was a community choir.

The first time I showed up for practice, I was stunned. My head was spinning. My ears rang. There, in front of me and all around, was a cacauphonous sea of sound, words in a foreign language, crazy gypsy rhythms, random high pitched yips. We were in a small apartment in another Victorian twin. I squeezed myself between the singers, kitchen counter and refrigerator and, desperately consulting the sheet music in my hand, became part of the 15 or so ladies belting out Serbian lyrics.

Gradually I became more comfortable with the songs. The rehearsals were part punk rock band, part language lessons, part wine and snacks and conversation, and always the chest-voice roar of dissonant chords. I sang in a performance and donned the headgear I had noticed that first time- a plastic flower crown.

I wanted to learn more about this intriguing music. I have not been able to find out very much yet. What I gathered so far is that it is folk music from eastern Europe, sometimes called Slavic or Balkan music. One song, Izlel ye Delyo Heydutin which happens to be Bulgarian, was sent into space on the Voyager spaceship in 1977. Lady Gaga, not to be outdone by aliens, discovered the music and used Kaval Sviri for her documentary and on her Twitter account in 2017. There is a 2012 documentary called Balkan Melodie about Marcel Cellier, a Swiss ethnomusicologist who researched and produced this type of music in the 1960’s, notably the women’s choir called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. I haven’t yet watched this film, but I have seen a video of that group on the Johnny Carson show. And you can, too! I also plan to visit a music library I know of to see if I can learn more about the history of this music. Stay tuned, because this music has a hold on me and I will be finding out more! In between rehearsals, of course.

Some of the choir at a performance last month

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